Ⓜ️ From the June edition of the Metropole print issue. Subscribe or get a copy at newsstands now.
So here we are, at press time, with Austria’s governing coalition deservedly in tatters. After the release of a fatally compromising video – documenting efforts to broker government contracts for illegal campaign contributions from wealthy Russians – the far-right vice chancellor H.C. Strache has been shown the door.
While it’s not over yet, Strache’s resignation, along with that of party chairman Johann Gudenus, effectively brings to an end a series of threats to intelligence gathering and media independence, to freedom of information and even to national security. Thus the wide-spread, palpable flood of relief. People are smiling at each other on the tram.
The downside? The all-important EU Parliamentary elections – less than a week away – seem all but lost in this political drama of Pride and Fall worthy of the ancients.
But maybe not. Thanks to the perennial soap opera in Westminster, interest in the European election was already higher than usual. Contrary to predictions of a domino effect following the 2016 Brexit referendum, the united front in Brussels – the consistency and clarity of Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk – has resulted in a stronger EU. The spectacle of the admired British parliament self-destructing in a tangle of weak leadership and personal ambition has been a cautionary tale that has made the safe harbor of Europe only more attractive.
This heightened interest couldn’t come at a better time – which was driven home in the ORF Pressestunde on Sunday morning, with SPÖ lead candidate for the EU Parliament, Andreas Schieder, Andreas Koller of the Salzburger Nachrichten and moderator Simone Stribl. In the midst of the government meltdown, said Schieder, the pattern was clear: And it was not unique to Austria.
The fight for Europe’s democracy
“Think about it,” he said, as he listed the right-wing politicians across Europe – Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and France’s Marine Le Pen among them – who had been financed in significant ways by the Russians. “Europe’s democracy must not allow foreign powers to influence the vote, and through right-wing populists, to try to destroy the European Union from within.”
While not a household name, Schieder is highly regarded in the SPÖ. A former party leader and Deputy Minister of Finance (Staatssekretär), he was recently runner up for mayor of Vienna, losing to housing czar Michael Ludwig. So was the EU job a consolation prize, provoked Stribl?
“Not at all,” Schieder rejoined. “Because all the decisive questions about our lives are increasingly addressed in Brussels.” The challenges of climate change, of social cohesion, digitalization and economic growth, he said, ticking them off, must all be decided at the European level. It’s a question of scale and, as with Brexit, clarity of focus. Over the course of the hour, Schieder addressed each one, outlining how concerted European action could address problems that paralyze national politics.
From minimum wage and “social dumping,” to tax loopholes (Starbucks in Austria paid €806 in taxes on €80 million in revenue), regulating online platforms and fighting climate change. “If you want to take any action against these giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Starbucks – then it is only in Europe as a whole. Austria alone cannot do this. Not even Germany.”
Europe is a political project – about learning to make shared decisions that define our lives together – that used the economic cooperation of the Coal and Steel Community as a basis for social solidarity and avoiding war. Today the choice is increasingly between joint solutions or nationalist retreat.
“Everyone understands,” Schieder said, “that Europe is at a fork in the road. And we must decide.”